Sunday, 22 January 2017

#Diverseathon 2017!

DiverseAThonToday I am embarking on my second 'proper' readathon. Emboldened by the success of my participation in Deweys 24-hour Readathon last year (read all about it here), which I felt was not only very enjoyable but also really focused my reading over the 24 hours I took part, I wanted to take part in something longer and have a go at a week-long readathon. 

#Diverseathon, which runs from today (Jan 22) until Sunday (Jan 29) was started in the autumn of 2016 as a response to a video which claimed that diversity in books didn't matter. It is, therefore, a week long readathon that celebrates diversity and representation in books, be that BAME representation, disability and deformity representation or LGBTQ++ representation. I heard about #Diverseathon via blogger and Booktuber Simon Savidge, one of the hosts of this month's readathon, who put up great video about #Diverseathon 2.0 along with his planned TBR for the week. Blogger Sophia Khan has also done a brilliant guest post over at Book Riot that explains more about #Diverseathon's history and aims, as well as reasons you might want to consider participating yourself.  

The concept of #Diverseathon appeals to me because, if I'm being honest, my reading can be really narrow at times. As a white, able-bodied, heterosexual woman living in the UK I have very little experience of being in the minority. And whilst I consider myself to be a supporter of equality in all its forms, I'm ashamed of how much my reading life reflects only my own lived experience. Looking at my shelves, there's a lot of white, European centred literature on there. This wasn't a conscious choice by any means but I find it telling and I want to do something about it. #Diverseathon is an opportunity to do this and to do it alongside others who I can share with and learn from. Plus I hopefully get to read a lot of great books too!

The Wangs vs The WorldSo, what tomes am I planning to topple during #Diverseathon? As luck would have it, I already have Jade Chang's 'The Wangs vs The World', a portrayal of a Chinese-American family in post-Lehman Brothers America; out from the library so this coming week seems like the perfect excuse to get that read. Billed as epic road-trip novel with a healthy smattering of humour, this also seems to be a book that examines the concept of the American dream as well as the differences between the first and second generation immigrant experience.

AmericanahSimilarly, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's acclaimed 'Americanah' has been on my TBR list for an absolute age. The novel, which examines the lives of teenage sweethearts Ifemelu and Obinze as they leave Nigeria to forge their lives in America and London respectively, is meant to be an unflinching exploration of race and identity. Adichie is an author whose fiction I've long been meaning to read so I really hope to get round to this one during the next week.

HomegoingAnother TBR book I've been itching to read but not yet got around to is Yaa Gyasi's debut 'Homegoing'. Released amid a good deal of  buzz this month in the UK, the novel has already garnered critical and reader acclaim in the USA. The story of two half-sisters, Efia and Esi, born in eighteenth century Ghana, one of whom is married off to an Englishman and the other who is sold into slavery in the New World, the novel follows their descendants in both Ghana and America through to the present day. I freely admit to knowing very little about the key moments in the history of the civil rights movement in the US and nothing at all about the history of Ghana so I'm hoping this novel will enlighten me on both points.
My Name is Leon
Moving across the Atlantic to English shores, Kit De Waal's 'My Name is Leon' has been recommended to me by a number of friends. Set in  the early eighties, the book tells the story of two brothers, 9 year old Leon and baby Jake, who are placed into foster care and threatened with separation because Jake is white and Leon is not. Beyond that, I don't know very much about the book but it's rare to find a book that examines the foster care system, let alone the tricky issues surrounding race and identity within this. In an era where blended families of many types are becoming increasingly common, this seems like an important and timely novel.  

The Good ImmigrantLast, but by no means least, some non-fiction in the form of 'The Good Immigrant', edited by Nikesh Shulka. Subtitled '21 Writers Explore What It Means To Be Black, Asian & Minority Ethnic In Britain Today', this is a collection of essays by modern British writers that examines the charged issue of immigration in the UK and invites discussion around societal attitudes towards immigration and race. How does it feel the be constantly regarded as a terror threat? How does it feel to be told to 'go home' to India when you live in London? How does it always feel to tick the box on the form marked 'Other'? Can you only be a 'good' immigrant if you win a national baking contest or an Olympic medal? Challenging times need people to ask questions such as these so I'm looking forward to dipping into this selection during the course of the week.

It is, of course, highly unlikely that I'm going to read 4 novels and an entire essay collection in the space of 7 short days (especially as one of those days is already nearly over with nary a page yet read!) but I feel this list gives me some really good options for the week ahead and I'd like to try and finish at least one of the novels, as well as making a good dent into the essays. I'll be posting updates on Twitter throughout the week @amyinstaffs and am hoping to take part in some of the Twitter chats being hosted by @diverseathon also. If you're planning to join me, please do say hi - leave me a comment down below or come find me on Twitter, Goodreads or Litsy (links in the sidebar). And, until the next time...

Happy Reading x

Monday, 16 January 2017

REVIEW: The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry

The Essex SerpentIf the first book that one reads in a year is an indication of what's to come, then 2017 should be a corker. Sarah Perry's 'The Essex Serpent', which I had the pleasure of finishing earlier this week, is a beautifully written, skillfully paced novel that contains all facets of life within it's pages. 

Set in the 1890s and moving between the oppressive streets of Victorian London and the desolate marshes of the Essex village of Aldwinter 'The Essex Serpent' is, at its heart, a novel about the meeting of two minds and a shared kinship too complex to define merely as love. For Cora Seaborne, a keen amateur naturalist, recently widowed and relishing freedom from an oppressive marriage; news that the mythical Essex Serpent may once again be abroad provide her with chance to test her skills in the pursuit of a new species. For William Ransome, vicar of Aldwinter, rumours of the beast bring only moral panic and uncertainty and a deviation from the certainties of faith. As Cora and her band of faithful followers descend on Aldwinter, she and Will discover a connection unlike any other as they are inexorably drawn together and torn apart. 

It is safe to say I adored this novel, although I have to admit to not being initially convinced as to its merits. For the first 50 pages or so, I felt there were too many characters, all apparently with only the flimsiest connection between them, and that the novel lacked a driving force behind the plot. The sheer quality of the writing kept me reading, with Perry's luscious prose bringing Victorian England vividly to life, painting pictures with words that allowed me to imagine the grimy slums of the London slums, the stifling atmosphere of a house in mourning and the clear, sparse beauty of the Essex salt marshes. Before I knew it, Perry had drawn me into her world so skillfully and allowed her characters to live so vividly that the slightness of the plot itself was incidental. 

For this is not, I feel, a plot heavy novel. Which could, in less skilled hands, make reading over 400 pages a chore. What Perry does so masterfully however is to invest her effort into character and human connection. The novel lives as real lives are lived - in the small details of human interaction and the many facets of emotion that make up the lived experience of every day life. Cora, Will and those around them are bought to life with a vivacity that is to be applauded. By the end of the novel I felt as if I knew these people, even if I did not quite always understand them. From their many fine qualities to their flaws, each character lived and breathed on the page from Cora and Will themselves to more minor characters such as the gentle, charming Charles Ambrose or confused teenager Naomi Banks. 400 pages flew by when I was reading and I had to make sure I only picked up the book when I had time to devour it in gulps, so involved did I become when reading it! I even picked it up in the mornings to read for half an hour before work, a rarity for me as I usually prefer to settle down with the morning news and indulge in a second cup of tea. 

I usually like to provide some comparisons within my review to guide those readers who might still be uncertain as to whether they might enjoy it. This is difficult with 'The Essex Serpent' however as it is rather unlike anything else I have read. Although a historical novel, to say only fans of historical novels would enjoy it is to deny it readers because the human interactions within its pages feel modern and relevant to today. There is, I think, a blending of fable and reality that reminds me a little of Eowyn Ivey's wonderful 'The Snow Child', and something in the vividly sharp prose that reminds me of  'Wolf Winter', which I read and reviewed last year and was one of my Books of the Year 2016. There's also a level of introspection and reflection of character that reminded me of Ian McGuire's 'The North Water', another one of my favourite books of 2016. 

The Essex SerpentInstead of trying to draw comparisons, maybe all I can say in summary of 'The Essex Serpent' is that from friendship to desire, faith to scepticism via love in all its many complicated forms, this is a novel whose characters feel real and that will make the reader feel deeply and therefore I urge you to read it. Until next time....

Happy Reading!


'The Essex Serpent' is published by Serpent's Tail and is available now from all good booksellers. 

NB: The novel has recently been awarded the Waterstones Book of the Year for (2016) - and has been reissued with a gorgeous blue cover for the occasion (see above) and was also  nominee for the Costa Book Award (2016).  

Monday, 2 January 2017

Reading Resolutions 2017

Yes, it's that time of year again. A new year brings with it new challenges but, alongside the vow to eat more greens and get to the gym three times a week(always made, rarely achieved!), I've been re-evaluating my reading life and working out what I want to get from my reading in 2017 and how this blog will fit into that. 

I spent a lot of 2016 feeling like I 'had' to read certain things. In an effort to grow and develop this blog, I took every opportunity that I could to obtain proofs, review to deadline and be as good a little book blogger as possible. And whilst I am very grateful to have read some great stuff as a result, it has led to me becoming bogged down in reading 'to order'. And when you have a day job, there's nothing worse than the thing you do for fun becoming a second job. It takes all the fun out of not only blogging but also reading. I feel it really affected me in 2016 and I intend to make sure it doesn't happen this year. 

So whilst I'm not going to go completely cold-turkey on proof requests and reviews in 2017, I do need to accept my limitations on how much I can read at any one time. Going forwards, I'm not going to be making promises about when I'll review a specific book. All I can say is, if I request a book; it's because I intend to read it at some point. Which might not be immediately. This will probably result in me receiving less proofs but all I can say is that I'd rather read a book in a positive, 'want to' frame of mind than feeling like it's a chore. I didn't start this blog to turn it into a second job - I have one of those already - I started it to have fun and share my love of good books and the best way I feel I can do that is to read what I want, when I want. 

My other reading goals this year are a little more targeted. As always, I've set myself a Goodreads challenge and am aiming to read 60 books in 2017. This is deliberately lower than last year's target (75 books) because, as per the above, I want to cut myself some slack and stop feeling like I have to read if I'm not in the mood. So I've selected a figure that feels challenging but do-able.

I also want to continue to read more diversely. To this end, I'm going to attempt the Book Riot 2017 Read Harder Challenge, which has 24 reading challenges designed to encourage you to stretch outside your comfort zone. Categories range from 'read a book about sports' through to 'read a superhero comic with a female lead' so I'm looking forward to giving it a go. 

And last, but by no means least, I want to try and read more books that I already own this year. In 2016, I bought A LOT of books. Far more than I could possibly read. Instead of helping me reduce The Shelf of Unread Books, 2016 expanded the shelf to shelves plus a pile under the bed and a fully-stocked bedside cabinet. Meaning I own a lot of books that I want to - and fully intend to - read. So whilst I'm not going on a complete book-buying ban (because life has to have some fun), I do want to reduce the amount I buy and read more of the books I already own. A 'one in, one out' rule of sorts. 

So those are my reading resolutions for 2017 - let's see what the year brings! As always, I'd love to hear from you about any bookish resolutions you've made for the upcoming year so please do come and say hi on Twitter, Goodreads or Litsy (links on the right hand sidebar).Wishing you all a very happy and joyous 2017 filled with lots of amazing books and, as always...

Happy Reading!